JUST WHEN I THOUGHT Oak Cliff couldn’t possibly shoehorn another modish restaurant into its gentrifying streets, along comes Driftwood and gives that notion a kick in the head. Silly me, I imagined that Lucia, Bolsa, Mesa Veracruz, Campo, Oddfellows, and Chicken Scratch—to name only the more recent ones—might signal impending saturation. Hardly. When friends and I dropped by to test the waters in mid-May, the capacity crowd was still mostly from the local south side. But I strongly suspect that the North Dallas foodoisie is on its way. And once that happens, the little aquamarine room had better watch out.
Under the direction of Abacus veteran Omar Flores, Driftwood bills itself as a seafood restaurant, but that predictable term in no way prepares you for chef Flores’s imaginative treatment of creatures that swim, float, and jet through the rivers and oceans. Consider, for instance, his hamachi crudo, a culinary jigsaw puzzle of brilliantly interlocking tastes. It starts with the austerity of raw yellowtail, which fits neatly into the fruity tartness of charred fresh pineapple, which is in turn twined with sweet, salty crushed macadamia nuts, and ends sparked with the subtle fragrance of grated coconut and mint. Nearly the polar opposite of that minimalist approach was a dish that we loved because it was so shamelessly over the top. Smoked-salmon rillettes (pictured), served in a canning jar, proved to be a sensuous, sour-cream-and-egg-enriched fish spread that we slathered on grilled bread like a decadent savory jam. Wisely, Flores cut the richness with a pile of bread-and-butter-pickled beets, as colorful as they were delicious.
After such a strong start, it was perhaps inevitable that entrées would suffer by comparison. And yes, only one of three truly stood out. Off the mark was a bland rice-flour-crusted softshell crab (though we liked its side of sweet, charred eggplant). Better were roasted diver scallops with pickled ramps and sassy kumquat marmalade in an assertive cured-ham broth. Best of all, though, was a meaty choice: a duo of rabbit loin with confit of leg. Rabbit is hellish to cook because it’s so lean. But the kitchen wrapped the loin in bacon and immersed both cuts in a natural jus with root spinach leaves and heirloom carrots. The result was as robust as a Sunday pot roast.
By the end of the meal, we barely had room for dessert. We just picked at the Callebaut chocolate terrine with leaden pistachio gelato but did better by the Madagascar-vanilla crème brûlée, with a fine orange-spiked caramel sauce. Mainly we spent our time—which we had plenty of because the kitchen fell sadly behind—admiring the decor, including a cast-metal shark’s jaw. The gleaming sculpture seemed prophetic. If crowds do in fact materialize, Driftwood’s gonna need a bigger boat. Bar. 642 W. Davis (214-942-2530). Dinner Tue–Sat 5–10. Closed Sun & Mon. Reservations recommended. $$–$$$ W+